Thursday 14 December 2017

Stradella's escapades, where truth was stranger than fiction

What's the secret of a successful opera? There's the music, of course. Some of the greatest songs have begun life on the stage. But the top and bottom of it is the story, and the more melodramatic it is, the better.

Alessandro Stradella, a 17th-century Italian, was well regarded as a composer of sacred music when he turned his hand to opera. He didn't have far to look for inspiration.

He was born of good Roman stock in 1644, but he lost both his parents before he reached his teens. His connections were good enough to get him fixed up as a page and, in no time, he was part of the boys' choir that belonged to the musical household of the former Queen of Sweden, who had abdicated, and was based in Rome.

He must have been a favourite, because she got him writing, and, with her as his patron, he had no difficulty picking up commissions.

So far, so straightforward. But then the plot thickened. He was involved in a scheme to swindle the church and had to skedaddle. When the fuss died down he came back to Rome, but trouble was his middle name. He had a sideline in matchmaking, and through his efforts to fix up a high-ranking official he created another scandal -- and this time he left for good. He got a job in Venice, as music tutor to the Doge's mistress, but he managed to foul this up by running off with her. They ended up in Turin, where Stradella was the victim of an assassination attempt. It was alleged that the jilted gentleman had arranged this and it became a diplomatic incident, as Turin, at the time, was under the control of the French.

Having survived, Stradella felt he'd better leave there as well, and he went on to Genoa, where he enjoyed a productive period composing his operas.

Despite his knack of getting into scrapes, he had also developed a considerable reputation in music. He developed the concerto grosso form (though Corelli was the first to employ the term), and his material was used as a starting point by many.

It was almost inevitable, though, that Stradella would come to a sticky end. When he took up with the wrong lady yet again, there was another attempt on his life, and this time it was successful. He was just 37 when he was killed in Genoa, on this date in 1682.

The story was too good to pass up. In 1844, Alessandro Stradella was premiered in Hamburg. What had been an opera in real life was the perfect raw material for the romantic composer Friedrich von Flotow. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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